A Frustrated Obama Returns to the 'Politics of Hope'

The president went back to his stomping grounds in the Illinois state senate and found more partisanship than he remembered.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

There was a moment in the middle of President Obama’s address to the Illinois state legislature on Wednesday when a look of fear briefly came over his face.

Speaking to lawmakers with whom he used to serve, the president had been waxing nostalgic about his time as a state senator. Legislating in Springfield, as Obama described it, was nothing like the polarized Washington swamp. Sure, there was plenty of disagreement in Illinois, and the two parties debated the issues vigorously. But the political fights were civil. Republicans and Democrats played poker with each other, enjoyed rounds of golf together. They socialized. They didn’t call each other “idiots” or “fascists,” he said, “because then we would have to explain why we were playing poker with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America.”

In the White House, Obama’s inability to change politics has become his greatest failure and, as he has conceded repeatedly, “one of my biggest regrets.” He had not, he told some of his former colleagues in Springfield, been able to close “the yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics.”

But everything was different in Illinois—or at least that’s how the president had remembered it when he left over a decade ago. Because as Obama was claiming credit for what he had accomplished in spite of all the partisan rancor, he saw that only the Democrats in the Illinois general assembly chamber were standing to applaud. The legislature was cleaving along party lines before his eyes, just like Congress does every year when he speaks in the Capitol.

At first Obama smirked. “See, I didn’t want this to be a State of the Union speech where we have the standing up and the sitting down,” he interjected, drawing chuckles from the lawmakers. “C’mon guys, you know better than that,” he joked, pointing at his Democratic friends.

But then instead of quieting down, the applause from Democrats grew louder, and cheers erupted. Now Obama was annoyed, and he looked momentarily afraid that he was losing control of the crowd. He put his hands up. “I’ve got a serious point to make here,” the president said. “I’ve got a serious point to make here, because this is part of the issue.”

The members in the Illinois legislature were proving Obama’s point, and not in the way he wanted.

This was intended as a grand homecoming for the president, coinciding with the ninth anniversary of the speech that launched his campaign for the White House. Joined by his close friends Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, and Senator Dick Durbin, Obama’s speech to the lawmakers and then a second one to supporters was part of a yearlong farewell tour of sorts that began with his State of the Union address. In returning to Springfield, the president was also returning to the place that had inspired his “politics of hope” message.

He began his speech with inside jokes and friendly call-outs to members of both parties before turning to his assessment of politics in America. The address lasted over an hour, but by the end Obama had mostly said a lot of things he’s said in interviews, speeches, and press conferences throughout his tenure. He called for reducing “the corrosive influence of money in politics”; an end to gerrymandered congressional districts; same-day and automatic voter registration laws that make it easier, not harder, for citizens to cast ballots; and a greater commitment to civility in politics.

Obama made only passing references to the presidential race, but it was hardly a coincidence that his call for civility came a day after the candidate of incivility, Donald Trump, had won a landslide victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary. “We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down,” he said. “We should insist on a higher form of discourse in our political life.” There were also lines that could have resonance in the Democratic race, as when Obama made a pitch for pragmatism and criticized groups in both parties who condemned compromise and demanded purity from their allies. (In a possible dig at Bernie Sanders, he knocked not only “union bashing” but also “corporate bashing.”) “That kind of politics means that the supporters will be perennially disappointed,” the president said. “It only adds to folks’ sense that the system is rigged. It’s one of the reasons why we see these big electoral swings every few years. It’s why people are so cynical.”

Obama’s remarks drew kudos from government-reform advocates but a much harsher response from Republicans. “President Obama is uniquely unqualified to deliver this message and the Illinois legislature is uniquely unqualified to play host to a speech on bipartisanship,” complained Representative Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican in Congress who served alongside Obama in the state Senate. “One thing in particular I’ve noticed about the president is his utter incapacity to be reflective about the weaknesses of his worldview.”

Yet the most interesting dynamic in Obama’s speech was his continued frustration that the politicians he was addressing—these friends he was holding up as exemplars!—kept acting like politicians. He chastised the Republicans for cheering his call for gerrymandering reform in a state whose districts have been drawn by Democrats. And he tried in vain to stop Democrats from acting as his partisan cheerleaders. “Sit down, Democrats!” he snapped playfully at one point, sounding like a teacher scolding students he had riled up in the first place.

It was all a little too symbolic at points, a president’s futile effort to keep a bunch of rowdy legislators in line. “One thing I’ve learned is that folks don’t change!” Obama ad-libbed when the lawmakers wouldn’t quiet down. In the moment, he was speaking of his former colleagues in Illinois, but it’s a sentiment the frustrated president could easily apply far more broadly than that.